Tuesday, 15 February 2011

BAFTA Reaction

So the BAFTA's have been awarded, the slushy speeches have been forgotten and the hangover of the after party has faded into a distant memory. In short, now the rubble's settled, let's look back on the winners.

Truthfully, the nominations were more exciting than the ceremony itself, an eclectic spread from Exit Through the Gift Shop for Best British Debut to a posthumous nod for Pete Postlethwaite for The Town. Well neither the late great actor nor Exit Through the Gift Shop won, and several other exciting nominees also lost out.

Was there ever any doubt though? This was the night The King's Speech reigned supreme. And yet, Tom Hooper's magnificent film is no mere awards-baiting showcase, but rather deserves all the success it's getting. It's a triumph of real acting, real story and real characters, and, judging by its UK box office receipts, has clearly struck a chord with the mainstream audience as well as the awards panel. It's a multifaceted success on every level, and Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter deserve kudos for their sincere acceptance speeches. The same kind of sincerity underlined all aspects of the production, and it's no surprise the film's hitting such lofty heights both financially and artistically.

Four Lions meanwhile was a smaller-scale but no less impressive triumph and it was thrilling to see it pick up Best British Debut. Elsewhere, there was a degree of balance by awarding Best Director (David Fincher) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin) to The Social Network. The riveting tragio-comic undercurrents to the story of the founding of Facebook really do derive from the combination of incisive, pacy direction and snappy, witty screenplay. On a technical level, Roger Deakins (who, I'm proud to announce, is from my hometown of Torquay) romped home with the Best Cinematography award for his tremendous work on True Grit, indicating with every passing year that he's likely the best DOP in the business today.

Christopher Lee's moving appearance when collecting the BAFTA Fellowship meanwhile is guaranteed to go down as one of the most memorable moments in its history, adding real poignancy to a sycophantic evening. Toy Story 3 for Best Animated Film and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for Foreign Language Film were pretty much shoo-ins from the off (it would have been nice to see Noomi Rapace get Best Actress, though). Truth be told, Natalie Portman deserved no less for her extraordinary performance in Black Swan.

Niggles? A couple. Inception, predictably, was relegated to the technical categories (not even Original Screenplay?), and John Powell lost out on Best Original Score to Alexandre Desplat for The King's Speech. The latter's a fantastic score and crucial to the film it accompanies but Powell's effort is one of the greatest adventure scores to emerge in recent years.

Still - can't have everything. Roll on the Oscars!

Monday, 14 February 2011

Sanctum 3D

As an underwater caving movie, Sanctum opens itself up to the most sneering phrases. 'Achieves no more than the slow drip of suspense'; 'Flows along with minor eddies of tension' and so on and so forth. Unfortunately such descriptions hold - yes - water. It's the very definition of average pedestrian cinema, drifting along at a deathly pace that draws attention to some stonking great cliches.

By no means is it terrible. It's just not especially good either. If anyone deserves mud slung at them it's the marketing team for plastering James Cameron's name all over the posters. Aside from his much touted role as executive producer, Cameron had no involvement in the film's creative process. If he had, it no doubt would have proven to be a more claustrophobic, gritty experience, if only because Cameron would likely have made more physical demands on his actors (a la The Abyss).

But instead we get the equivalent of Neighbours Goes Underwater. A group of Aussie actors headed by Van Helsing's Richard Roxburgh end up trapped in a vast underground caving system after a nasty tropical storm arrives early. Of course the only way out is down and before someone can scream The Descent, there's squabbling, bickering and failing oxygen masks aplenty. The only thing was The Descent sustained tension to an exhausting degree, on a fraction of Sanctum's budget. If that isn't proof that money doesn't buy you everything, nothing is.

While the boxes are being checked - father son reconciliation; slimy American entrepreneur emerging as a baddie (played by Ioan Gruffudd in a textbook definition of miscasting) - there's undeniably some beautiful underwater photography. Yes, DOP Jules O'Loughlin knows how to light a cave magnificently and, when accompanied by David Hirschfelder's ethereally textural score, it does often take the breath away.

But of course amazing caves do not a caving thriller make; unfortunately we are constantly distracted by the plastic human figures at the centre of the drama. A few sequences late on threaten to grapple with more tension but the film is undercut by its own cynical constructs, including a desperate last ditch attempt to draw more audiences with the lure of 3D. Sorry, that's no substitute for the inherent lack of good drama.

And as for the equally desperate 'based on true story' epigraph - when a key character seems to die and come back to life twice, that's no representation of reality. It's pure cinematic hokum.

Monday, 7 February 2011


Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu exploded onto the art house scene with Amores Perros. A vital, thrilling series of interlocking, harsh, nasty stories, it lit the proverbial fire beneath Mexican cinema, leading the charge for the renaissance it enjoys today. Unfortunately, his latest, Biutiful, doesn't so much burst into life as seep slowly down the screen like treacle. It's less schematic than his previous effort, Babel, but is so intent on rubbing our faces in spiritual and physical miserablism that it is by turns numbing, irritating and farcical.

Someone should tell Inarritu that many of the best dramas are flecked with just as much compassionate humour as despair. Well, humour's definitely what's missing from Biutiful, although trying to elicit laughs from the ludicrous number of torments piled on Javier Bardem would certainly be difficult. It attempts to make the audience suffer vicariously as its protagonist does - but unlike Amores Perros, or indeed 21 Grams, the sheer magnitude of the suffering means the film feels oddly artificial.

Bardem's Uxbal is dying. Not just physically (from cancer, he is informed at the outset), but spiritually, too. By turns a devoted father to his two children and a lowly, underworld figure in a strikingly seedy, grubby Barcelona (one of the film's successes is how it subverts the popular image of the city), he is also experiencing a crisis of faith. Involved in local drug dealing, he also has connections to a Chinese immigrant sweatshop. His bipolar ex-wife, Marambra (an excellent Maricel Alvarez) is also an unpredictable factor in his life. Can he juggle all his responsibilities as he prepares to meet his maker?

Well, it's a lot of emotional baggage. So much so that even one of Thomas Hardy's classic tragic heroes may have asked someone else to help shoulder the burden. But Inarritu's biggest failing is that none of the misery amounts to anything on an emotional level. Instead, he makes the fatal mistake of assuming that overloading the screen with tragedy will make his film inherently tragic. Sorry, Alejandro, it doesn't work, and attempts at faux spiritualism (Uxbal's ill-defined abilities as a medium; birds flying across a vast expanse of blue sky) only serve to make it more trite.

Any and all of the film's limited success can be attributed directly to Bardem. It's to Inarritu's and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's credit that they choose to make the most of this commanding actor's craggy features in extreme close-up throughout, allowing Bardem to deploy his thousand yard stare to more thoughtful and distressing effect. But despite his best efforts, the performance is quashed by Inarritu's overbearing, over-achieving direction, which, in its attempt at profundity, instead has the opposite effect of dumbing everything down.